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Protecting California's prisoners

The Supreme Court should uphold a judicial panel's order that the state reduce its prison population.

November 30, 2010

Ordinarily, states rely on courts and prisons to protect the citizenry from criminals, but California seems determined to turn that convention on its head: Here, we need courts to protect criminals from the state's voters.

The U.S. Supreme Court will consider Tuesday whether to overturn an order by a panel of three federal judges that the state reduce its prison population to 137.5% of capacity within two years, which would mean trimming the inmate count by about 25% from its current average of 165,000. The judges determined that medical care for inmates was so bad that it violated the Constitution's ban on cruel and unusual punishment, and cited overcrowding as a primary cause. California has appealed the order and is being joined by 18 other states, which are worried that their own prison systems might not pass federal muster.

To understand how California found itself in a position in which it must build more prisons, release 40,000 inmates or transfer them to other states, or some combination, it's helpful to examine the results of a recent Times/USC poll. Asked how they would close the state's $25-billion budget gap, voters strongly rejected tax hikes yet offered few suggestions on what spending programs to cut — with one exception. More than 70% wanted to cut the prison system's budget. Meanwhile, voters here have a long history of supporting tough-on-crime measures, which helped boost the prison population to unsustainable numbers.

It's unrealistic to expect politicians to fix the system, because the measures suggested by experts to reduce the prison population — enhancing job training and rehabilitation programs, revising mandatory sentencing rules, coming up with alternatives to prison for nonviolent convicts — would anger voters, who don't want to pay for new programs or new prisons but also don't want to let anyone out early. Progress has been made on one front: Lawmakers have revised parole rules that cycled nonviolent drug offenders back to prison, and are now concentrating scarce oversight resources on more dangerous parolees. But this needed reform occurred only after pressure from the federal bench.

If the Supreme Court removes that pressure by overturning the three-judge panel's order, it wouldn't just be bad for prisoners, who are dying from inadequate medical care at the rate of one every eight days. It would be bad for public safety. Warehousing inmates in overcrowded spaces devoid of job or drug programs but packed with hardened gangsters makes them more likely to reoffend when they're released.

It would be better if lawmakers could repair this system on their own, but their record suggests they need judicial supervision. We hope the justices of the Supreme Court keep that in mind.

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